STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Brady has emerged into a star after a second Super Bowl MVP award in three seasons. He reads defenses as well as any and makes sound, quick decisions with the ball, which takes the pressure off an offensive line that might otherwise have trouble giving him ample time. He is an accurate passer who continues to improve and throws a much better deep ball than he did in his first year as the starter back in 2001. He is fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery after playing all of last year in some degree of pain. He will be given more freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage and it will be interesting to see how he handles that responsibility.
Davey appears to be the frontrunner for the backup job after a strong spring playing in Europe, but he is still very much unproven at the NFL level, which may be why the Patriots went after Miller. Kingsbury has not shown a dramatic jump since his rookie season and will need a strong camp as will Kittner. Miller will miss training camp after undergoing shoulder surgery, but his experience gives him a leg up for a spot. The Patriots will go to camp with four quarterbacks to limit Brady's training camp reps.
Dillon takes over as the clear-cut lead back, a job Antowain Smith struggled to nail down the last two years. Dillon is a more decisive runner than Smith and while he doesn't bring blazing speed, he is quick to the hole and is a north-south runner with some agility and pass catching ability. He is an upgrade in the backfield and gives the Patriots a runner that must be game planned for. Faulk will continue to jump in as a change of pace and a third down back. He is a tremendous receiver out of the backfield and operates well in space, making him dangerous on draws and screens. He has not proven capable of shouldering the every down load and may not be pleased when his workload is reduced this season, but it could improve his overall effectiveness and allow the coaches to better accentuate his strengths.
McCrary is the only true fullback on the roster and is a solid lead blocker with some running and receiving skills from the position. The Patriots may elect to line up a tight end in the backfield more often rather than a true fullback, which could make McCrary expendable, but he is likely to stick around.
Cobbs will sit behind Dillon and try to learn the offense. He is behind heading into camp after missing much of the team's June minicamp with an undisclosed injury. If healthy, he will battle Cloud to back up Dillon in a tight battle for roster spots. Patrick Pass is a solid special teams player who brings some versatility to the fullback spot as a runner and receiver, but hasn't proven himself enough to earn a regular role in the offense. That won't change.
This position could be a major strength for New England with emphasis on the word "could." Fauria has been nothing if not solid since signing before the 2002 season and while he lacks game-breaking speed, he may have the best hands of the group and is a decent blocker who becomes a threat as a receiver in the short zones and in the red zone. Graham is a punishing blocker with excellent speed and athleticism. He has shown the ability to stretch the field down the middle and make difficult catches, but he has dropped too many easy ones since arriving two years ago as a first round pick. If Graham's work with the JUGS passing machine this offseason pays off, he could emerge into a major threat.
Watson is an athletic freak with even better speed than Graham. He strained an Achilles during June minicamp and his status for training camp is unknown, but if he is healthy, he should give the Patriots one of the deepest trios of tight ends in football with a pair of big receivers who can stretch a defense and create coverage mismatches against linebackers.
This will be one of the most competitive positions in training camp. It doesn't even matter who the starters are since the Patriots use so many three receiver sets. Brown is still the Patriots' most clutch and reliable receiver, but Branch and Givens enjoyed breakout seasons last year capped off by strong postseasons.
That trio tops the depth chart while Bethel Johnson factors in with incredible speed as the most prolific deep threat. With those four virtual locks to make the roster, Patten, Stokes, Sam and Gessner fall into a group battling for one and maybe two spots.
If Belichick keeps six, then Patten will be in that group and the rookie Sam would have a leg up on the rest based on his potential. If he keeps five, this will be one of the toughest cuts on the roster.
Starters -- LT Matt Light, LG Russ Hochstein, C Dan Koppen, RG Joe Andruzzi, RT Tom Ashworth. Backups -- G Wilbert Brown, G Stephen Neal, T Tim Provost, G Gene Mruczowski, G/C Bob Hallen, T David Pruce, T/G Adrian Klemm, T Jack Fadule, T/G Brandon Gorin, G Jamil Soriano.
Light has been nothing if not reliable at left tackle, and Andruzzi is coming off his first fully healthy season since joining the club in 2000. Koppen is back and penciled in at center after a solid rookie season learning on the job as an injury replacement. Ashworth showed dramatic improvement last year and barely lost a training camp battle with Klemm to start at right tackle. He took over for an injured Klemm three weeks into the season and did a solid job handling some of the league's top rushers who lined up across from him looking for a matchup advantage. He will likely hold off all challengers to maintain his spot, although the oft-injured Klemm will push for the job as will Gorin, who has taken a path similar to Ashworth as a former practice squad player.
The most intense battle up front will come at left guard where Hochstein, Neal, Brown and Hallen will all battle for the job. While the competition there will be close, at least one of those players won't likely be on the final roster. This doesn't appear to be a position littered with depth, although the same was true last year. The line was hit hard by injuries and the replacements proved capable of stepping up. With Damien Woody and Mike Compton now out of the picture, it'll be interesting to see if the same can be said this year.
Starters -- DE Ty Warren, NT Keith Traylor, DE Richard Seymour. Backups -- DT Dan Klecko, DE Marquise Hill, DE Rodney Bailey, DE/DT Jarvis Green, DT Ethan Kelley, DL Ryan Atoe, DT Vince Wilfork, DT Devonte Peterson, DL Buck Rasmussen
This could potentially be one of the better fronts in football with All Pro Richard Seymour dominating opponents and anchoring the group from his defensive end spot in the 3-4. Second-year man Ty Warren, a 2003 first round pick, should emerge as the other starter on the end while Traylor will leave camp as the starting nose tackle, but will be steadily pressed for his job by rookie Vince Wilfork, who will gradually work his way in early in the season to rest Traylor before eventually taking over the job.
Wilfork's emergence could give the Patriots three recent first round picks across the defensive front. Behind that group is solid depth that will push and compete for playing time while working into the line rotation and playing in sub defenses. Green finished strong last year and hopes to pick up where he left off, which might be good enough for him to out-perform Warren early on. Bailey will play inside in some rushing situations, but also will work in on the end while Hill gets brought along slowly even though he has a solid background in the defense after playing under Belichick protege Nick Saban at LSU.
Klecko could potentially see more time at linebacker this summer than on the line, but will put his hand on the ground in some rushing situations.
Starters -- OLB Mike Vrabel, ISLB Tedy Bruschi, IWLB Roman Phifer, OLB Willie McGinest. Backups -- OLB Rosevelt Colvin, ILB Ted Johnson, OLB Tully Banta-Cain, ILB Larry Izzo, OLB Matt Chatham, OLB Justin Kurpeikis, LB Don Davis, LB Eric Alexander, OLB Quinn Dorsey, LB Grant Steen, LB Lawrence Flugence, LB Dan Klecko.
This remains a deep, solid and experienced group, but it isn't getting any younger and one has to wonder when it turns from being experienced to being too old. Vrabel and McGinest are playmaking edge rushers who have shown the versatility to drop into coverage and give the defense a semblance of unpredictability with its pass rush.
Bruschi, Phifer and Johnson will continue a rotation inside designed to preserve their aging legs and manage their reps. Colvin isn't likely to be a factor early on, but could be back in form by midseason, which would give the position a boost if his fractured hip is fully recovered and doesn't slow him. Banta-Cain will have a chance to earn more playing time if Colvin is out, and if he can take advantage he will give the Patriots another solid outside rusher to go with some tough interior pass rushers. Most of the other linebackers are special teamers although Chatham played well as an injury replacement last year when called upon.
Starters -- CB Ty Law, CB Tyrone Poole, S Rodney Harrison, S Eugene Wilson. Backups -- CB Asante Samuel, CB Terrell Buckley, CB Jeff Burris, S Guss Scott, S Dexter Reid, S Shawn Mayer, S Je'Rod Cherry, S Scott Farley, CB Christian Morton, CB Randall Gay.
Like wide receiver, this will be one of training camp's most competitive positions with roster spots hard to come by. The top five return from last year to give the Patriots a solid group with Samuel maybe pressing Poole for his starting job. If Law has another shutdown, Pro Bowl season and Harrison stays healthy, this remains one of the league's stronger defensive backfields. From there it gets fuzzy depending on how many defensive backs Belichick retains. He has kept as many as 10 in the past. Buckley and Burris would figure to be frontrunners, although it remains possible that only one of those two makes the roster to lend an experienced hand while the rest of the spots get filled with young up-and-comers. Rookies Scott and Reid should make the team as backups since both came to New England with reputations as solid special teamers. Cherry may be the team's best kick coverage man outside of Larry Izzo, which should give him a leg up and Shawn Mayer showed enough last year as undrafted rookie to make the roster. If he has improved, he will leave Belichick with some interesting decisions. The wildcards in the defensive backfield are speedy rookie corners Christian Morton and Randall Gay, a seventh round pick and undrafted rookie, respectively. Both have top-level speed, but lacked consistency in college.
Starters -- PK Adam Vinatieri, P Josh Miller, LS Lonie Paxton, KR Bethel Johnson, PR Troy Brown. Backups -- P Cody Scates, LS Brian Sawyer, KR Patrick Pass, PR Kevin Faulk, PR Deion Branch, PR Tyrone Poole.
Vinatieri is coming off one of his worst seasons and was still as clutch as ever when postseason games were on the line. His 10 misses last year can be at least somewhat attributed to an ailing back that he remained quiet about all season. He gives the Patriots one of the most reliable players in the league at his position. Miller has to be a definite upgrade over Ken Walter at punter. He is a similar style of kicker in that he is a placement kicker without a huge leg, but he is much more consistent than Walter. He will, however, need to develop a comfort level working as Vinatieri's holder. Paxton is recovering from knee surgery and if he is not ready to go by July 29, he will begin camp on the PUP list while Sawyer handles long-snapping chores.
Bethel Johnson is one of the league's most dangerous kickoff return men. He has blazing speed and incredible acceleration and is a threat to score on every kick. Brown battled injuries that limited his returns last year, but he is a smart, reliable punt returner who has terrific vision and makes big plays despite lacking top speed.
Larry Izzo and Je'Rod Cherry give the Patriots two strong kick coverage players and will try to tutor some younger contributors to keep the team's kicking game at a high level.